Can ‘Bad Boys’ become good men?

Will Smith became the biggest movie star in the world by playing one cop after another. In the Black Lives Matter era, can that still resonate?

This essay contains spoilers about Bad Boys for Life.

Will Smith became the biggest movie star in the world by playing one cop after another. Now, he’s got a new Bad Boys movie coming out, but there’s a question looming right alongside it: In the post-Black Lives Matter era, can Bad Boys still resonate?

In the 1990s, when Bad Boys debuted, we could lie to ourselves that what happened to Rodney King — and the bigotry that propelled it — was exceptional. The immediacy of the internet has radically reshaped conversations around race and policing. Instances such as Diamond Reynolds livestreaming the death of her partner, Philando Castile, or cellphone video of the last moments of Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, have exposed an epidemic of fatal police violence that is disproportionately targeted at black people.

The internet has also affected the way journalists investigate police shootings. There’s far more vocal and justifiable skepticism of simply accepting the details in police reports. Work by Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg has pushed us to reconsider how depictions of the police in pop culture shape how we think about them. Even Cops, TV’s longest-running reality show and the one whose theme song provides the title for the Bad Boys franchise, has been subjected to critical examination. The conclusion? Cops is little more than propaganda for policing, powered by the cooperation of police departments across the nation.

Bad Boys for Life, which stars Will Smith (left) and Martin Lawrence (right), arrives in theaters after the country has found itself enmeshed in much more nuanced and complicated conversations about power, race, policing, and gun violence.

Ben Rothstein/Columbia Pictures

And so Bad Boys for Life, which opens Friday, arrives with the country enmeshed in much more nuanced and complicated conversations about power, race, policing, and gun violence. What happens to a black movie star when his most popular film avatar has become associated with negative connotations since that star reached the commercial zenith of his career? Are audiences still open to the veneration of cops — even black cops — when they have become symbols of extrajudicial killing, targeted harassment, an unjust, ineffective, racist drug war, and the perpetuation of white supremacy? How do uncomplicated, black-and-white depictions of morality, where cops are central, play in a post-Ferguson, post-13th era?

Written by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan and directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, Bad Boys for Life attempts to incorporate these developments into the story of Miami police partners Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Smith). It’s a far more ethically complicated and self-aware film than its two predecessors. The initial Bad Boys films were conventional, violent buddy cop stories in which Mike and his penchant for torture and chaos was presented as unambiguously cool and largely justified. Mike’s boyish goodness was implicit. The people he killed were bad, and they had it coming. In Bad Boys for Life, this has to be stated explicitly.

“I’m ashamed of some of the stuff we had to do,” Marcus says in prayer. “Thou shalt not kill. … But they were all bad guys, I promise!”

In Bad Boys for Life, a mysterious gunman on a motorcycle nearly kills Mike. While his partner is in a six-month coma, Marcus bargains with God. If Mike lives, Marcus vows to retire his violent ways. But this is a Bad Boys movie, so Marcus inevitably gets conscripted back into them.

In the past decade or so, Smith, 51, has attempted to rekindle the enthusiasm for himself and his work by reminding the public of his greatest hits. In 2008, he released Hancock, in which he plays a surly superhero who cooperates with the Los Angeles Police Department. Then in 2016, there was Suicide Squad, where he’s Deadshot, a reformed criminal turned hired gun working on behalf of the U.S. government. Both Hancock and Deadshot are malcontented wisecrackers, but Suicide Squad reveals that Deadshot is also atoning for and flogging himself for being a poor father. And in 2017, Smith starred in Bright, in which he’s an LAPD officer in a world where humans coexist alongside elves, orcs, and fairies. He’s also signed on for a Bright sequel and a fourth Bad Boys film. And unlike the first two Bad Boys, Smith is a producer on the third and fourth chapters. Surely he’s aware of the risks involved. He’s banking on his capability to draw audiences, but he’s grown more introspective about it.

Will Smith is banking on his capability to draw audiences, but he’s grown more introspective about it.

Kyle Kaplan/Columbia Pictures

In 2016 at a Cannes Lion session, Smith said the days of “smoke and mirrors in sales and marketing” that helped films like Wild Wild West become a commercial hit are over. “Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you had a piece of crap movie, you put out a trailer with a lot of explosions and it was Wednesday before people knew your movie was s—. But now what happens is 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting, ‘This is s—, go see Vin Diesel.’

“I had so much success that I started to taste global blood and my focus shifted from my artistry to winning,” Smith said at Cannes. “I wanted to win and be the biggest movie star, and what happened was, there was a lag — around Wild Wild West time — I found myself promoting something because I wanted to win versus promoting something because I believed in it.”

To achieve this universal appeal, Smith established his bona fides with two audiences who have markedly different relationships with police. Early black fans of Smith knew him as the Fresh Prince, the rapper to Jazzy Jeff’s DJ. The duo won the first Grammy presented for best rap performance in 1989 with “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

The ascension of Will Smith, Movie Star, however, would rely on more than just black ticket-buyers. He rose to mythical heights of celebrity in the mid-’90s and early 2000s by playing a swaggering American soldier in Independence Day and a variety of cops that he imbued with his effortlessly funny but safely rebellious brand of Black Cool. It was easy and uncomplicated to root for characters such as Mike Lowrey, Agent J (Men in Black), James West (Wild Wild West), and Del Spooner (I, Robot).

Marcus Burnett (played by Martin Lawrence, left) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith, right) are at the club waiting for the takedown in a scene from Bad Boys for Life.

Ben Rothstein/Columbia Pictures

Smith’s “I make this look good” line from Men in Black refers to the uniform of black suit, white shirt and black tie that he’s donned in his capacity as Space Fed. But beyond that, Smith makes institutionalism look good.

“The presence of black cops in American pop culture says both that American policing is worth fighting for, and investing in, and being a part of, because that’s how you make change. It’s also a vote of confidence in the Hollywood studio system,” Rosenberg said. “These stories ultimately offer up this hope of change. It’s sort of perfect that Will Smith has played so many cops, because he is in so many ways a product of being invested in the system. He is the black movie star that Hollywood managed to manufacture and give a long-term career to.”

Will Smith rose to mythical heights of celebrity in the mid-’90s and early 2000s by playing a swaggering American soldier in Independence Day and by playing a variety of cops that he imbued with his effortlessly funny but safely rebellious brand of Black Cool.

Smith is part of a long line of black actors who attained movie star status by playing cops. See: Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night, Eddie Murphy in the Beverly Hills Cop movies, and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon franchise.

In pop culture, Rosenberg said, police departments serve as “citizenship machines.” People of different racial and ethnic backgrounds can enter the police academy or go through basic training in the military. And then, presto! “If you go through the wringer, everyone comes out the other side and can assume authority and respect,” she said.

The actors who play Mike’s younger colleagues in Bad Boys for Life — Vanessa Hudgens and Charles Melton — are subjected to the citizenship machine, too. If the Bad Boys franchise is to continue without Smith and Lawrence, it will likely be with Hudgens and Melton as their cool-headed replacements. We’ve already witnessed this changing of the guard in another Smith franchise, with Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth taking over as the newest galaxy cops in Men in Black: International.

The citizenship machine isn’t just important for nonwhite characters, though. It’s a potent and reliable instrument in image-crafting and star-making for nonwhite actors. In Training Day, Denzel Washington’s Alonzo subjects the machine to the ultimate stress test. Alonzo is a loathsome antihero: a dirty narcotics cop who is contemptuous of the most vulnerable members of society, and who thrives on bedlam and subterfuge. For his efforts, Washington was rewarded with the Oscar for best actor. But, well, there’s only one Denzel, and by the time he played Alonzo, his position in Hollywood was well-established. He had the star capital to spend.

Ultimately, Bad Boys for Life argues that the militarization of police and the lust for tanks, grenade launchers, automatic weapons and other instruments of war are justified and necessary.

Kyle Kaplan/Columbia Pictures

What’s surprising about Bad Boys for Life is how much it functions as a consideration of the decisions and compromises Smith made to attain his position as The Biggest Movie Star in the World. The latest installment in the series is consumed with questioning whether films of its ilk are becoming obsolete and what might arise as a viable alternative, and it uses the contrast between Mike and his millennial colleagues on the police force to do so.

Though Mike is a stubborn champion of finger-breaking and butt-kicking, he’s also An Old. He uses dye to cover up the gray in his beard. He no longer possesses the social capital to bypass the doorman at Miami’s hottest nightspots. He clings to his preferred style of dress, the playboy suits and muscle shirts of his prime, without realizing they have gone out of fashion. Mike dresses, Marcus says, “like a drug dealer.”

Meanwhile, Mike’s young colleagues have placed their confidence in technology. They believe in using drones for surveillance and see violence as a largely unnecessary last resort. Bad Boys for Life introduces these less violent millennials as the new frontier of policing, one that is more caring, logical, tactical, and less destructive. Bad Boys for Life tries to argue for cooperation and symbiosis between the generations. But it also repeatedly undermines or ridicules the methods and ideas of the younger set.

“I guess my old tricks still work a little bit,” Mike proclaims after engaging in some extrajudicial lip loosening to uncover the name of the person making the customized bullets used to attack him. Mike likens himself to Malcolm X, and Marcus, who has soured on violence as a method of extracting information, to Martin Luther King Jr.

“All our lives, we’ve been Bad Boys,” Marcus tells Mike. “Now it’s time to be good men.”

Ultimately though, Bad Boys for Life argues that the militarization of the police and the lust for tanks, grenade launchers, automatic weapons and other instruments of war, are justified. Journalist Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, has repeatedly pushed back against such assertions and cautioned that such instruments are disproportionately used to terrorize black communities.

So how do they make this OK? If they must be Bad Boys, Marcus rationalizes, they’ll be “Bad Boys of the Bible.”

While this parsing of the future of the buddy cop genre offers new wrinkles, Bad Boys for Life is far from a flawless project. Its faults are exasperating and adolescent, especially when it comes to its villain, a murderous Mexican bruja named Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo). If I’m being generous, Isabel could be a nod to the notorious real-life drug queenpin Griselda Blanco, but she’s not a particularly interesting one. She’s irresistibly sexy, but she’s also jealous, manipulative, deceptive, and vindictive. She’s not a real woman at all, but a cautionary tale, a soulless construction of tropes that dominate the racist, misogynist imagination in order to prop up an ideology of “bros before hoes.” An incredulous Marcus repeatedly asks Mike how he could have sex with a witch without using a condom.

Isabel is a scapegoat. After the movie spends the majority of its runtime arguing with itself about the merits and costs of the collateral damage and violence that Mike is wedded to inflicting, it blames Isabel for his bloodthirsty lust for criminal-hunting and his casual disregard for anything — or anyone — that impedes that mission.

Mike met and fell in love with Isabel while working undercover, before he became partnered with Marcus. It was she, Mike explains, who molded him into the highly effective seek-and-destroy policing machine he became. She raises her son, Armando, whom Mike unwittingly fathered, to be a faster, stronger, more ruthless and more precise version of his absent dad. Isabel, Bad Boys for Life asserts, is so irredeemable that she must be shot and pitched into a pit of fire. But her son — the one who has been on a mommy-directed mission to kill Mike since the movie started — is presented as a figure who can be saved if he renounces his mother’s bruja brainwashing.

And the methods for bringing this redemption about? First, a Daniel Pantaleo-style choke hold (the one that killed Eric Garner) that Mike uses to temporarily immobilize his son. And then, a cage, not too dissimilar to the cages that have been used to warehouse undocumented immigrants and their children.

The movie concludes by affirming Mike’s status within the citizenship machine. He is entrusted with extending its promise of respect and protection to his grown progeny. From the outside of the cage, Mike dangles the possibility for his son to assimilate, and to perhaps rise as a new generation of Bad Boy. He just has to denounce everything Mexican about himself (because everything Mexican about himself is bad). The choke hold, the cage, and the film’s endorsement and prescription of assimilation were off-putting, but were they enough to counter the heady intoxication that is the magnetic charisma of Smith-as-Mike-Lowrey?

When I walked out of the theater and into Times Square, the first people I spotted were two uniformed New York Police Department officers. I immediately thought of Garner and his last words. I remembered the lethal suffering that Garner’s family faced in the wake of his death, and the suffering that Ramsey Orta, who filmed Garner’s death, has continued to endure at the hands of law enforcement.

I sobered up quick.

Liner Notes

A short history of Will Smith as a cop:

Men in Black (1997, 2002, 2012): Space cop

Wild Wild West (1999): Reconstruction-era federal marshal cowboy cop

Bad Boys (1995, 2003, 2020): Trigger-happy womanizing Miami cop

I, Robot (2004): Futuristic cyborg cop

Hancock (2008): Superhero cop (per Boots Riley, all superheroes are cops)

Suicide Squad (2016): Reformed-criminal-turned-cop

Bright (2017): Magic fantasy cop

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.